Do Catholics really enjoy Easter as much as they could? That may sound a silly question. Of course Easter is a glorious feast — the more so because of the solemn season of Lent that precedes it.
But many Catholic families today know little of their heritage, and of the customs and traditions that belong to Easter and are theirs to share and enjoy. To be a Catholic is to lay claim to a rich and wonderful store of knowledge. Our Easter traditions are associated with all sorts of things — nursery rhymes, pub signs, old recipes and folklore that are interesting to discover and good to share.
Many families will think of foil-wrapped eggs and an Easter bunny as the central elements of their Easter celebrations. That’s all right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.
Eggs at Easter are a very old tradition, and long pre-date the Easter bunny, who in his modern form is really a late-20th-century commercial phenomenon. Enjoying eggs at Easter goes back to the idea of real fasting in Lent. Our medieval ancestors gave up all meat, eggs and dairy products during this season, and at Easter there were plenty of eggs to spare! So they were colored and distributed as gifts, and hidden for children to find in games, and decorated for the Easter breakfast table. In fact, egg-hunting also has a natural origin — if hens are allowed to range freely, they will often lay their eggs in the most unlikely places, and hunting for eggs has kept children busy on many a spring morning — so the tradition of hiding special eggs echoes something that long-ago children would readily understand as a natural part of life.
Each day of Holy Week is special. Of course we honor Palm Sunday with a palm procession at church. Did you know that every donkey has a “cross” on its back, because, so the story goes, it was a donkey that carried our Savior into Jerusalem. (I told this to an Evangelical friend and she didn’t believe me. But she wrote to me a year later to admit that it was true — she had been taking a careful look at any donkey she happened to see, and every one of them bore the clear mark of the cross!).
After Mass, palms carried in procession can be folded to make traditional crosses and tucked into prayer-books, or they can be used as part of the Easter morning breakfast flower arrangement before being kept somewhere special and burnt on Ash Wednesday of next year. Wednesday of Holy Week is called Spy Wednesday, commemorating the traitor Judas. Holy Thursday is sometimes called Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum meaning a command. It is the same word that gives us words like “mandate” and “mandatory” and indeed the second syllable of the word “command.”
We are reminded of Christ’s command that we love one another on Holy Thursday. In memory of this, the priest at Mass will kneel and wash the feet of 12 men, just as Christ washed the feet of his apostles. In Britain, the monarch used to wash the feet of 12 poor men on Maundy Thursday — a tradition that only died after the Reformation. Today, however Queen Elizabeth still distributes the “Royal Maundy” money to as many men and women as there are years of her age; to be chosen is seen as a great honor. The money — one coin of each denomination — is specially minted and although it is valid currency, it is usually kept and passed down in the family as an heirloom.
Part of the ceremony involves the Queen being given a bouquet of scented herbs and flowers — lavender, rosemary and others. This dates back to the time when the monarch really did wash the feet of poor men — the herbs were there to cover up the smell!
They also have another meaning. “There’s rosemary — that’s for remembrance,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and certainly it is said to improve the memory. It is associated with the bitter herbs eaten as part of the Passover meal, and its links with memory also fit with the whole concept of the Last Supper: “Do this is remembrance of me.”
It is traditional to eat roast lamb at Easter — again because of its Passover associations. We think of Christ, the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. In Britain, the Lamb and Flag is a well-known pub sign. It refers to Christ. The flag that the lamb always carries over its shoulder shows a red cross on a white background. Christ as the lamb is a central part of our faith and has been taught to children down all the generations. In the past, as now, children were taught their faith by songs and poems. Some have come down to us as nursery rhymes. Sometimes they have been corrupted over the years, but there is still a phrase or two that echoes. Think about this: “Mary had a little lamb. Its fleece was white as snow …”
The lamb-and-flag motif is one that crops up again and again in Europe’s churches and cathedrals. The red cross on a white background is still with us in the form of the International Red Cross, which deliberately adopted the symbol used by Hospitallers in the days of the Crusades who tended Christian and Muslim alike in the name of a merciful Christ. The red on the cross indicates Christ’s blood, shed for us on Good Friday.
It is also the cross of St. George, a martyr whose grave is in the Holy Land. He was martyred on a Good Friday in the early fifth century. April 23 is his feast day. You will see his symbol of a red cross on various national flags, from Georgia in the former Soviet Union to England, where it forms part of the Union Jack.
There are many traditions associated with Good Friday. Blacksmiths used to refuse to hammer nails for horseshoes on that day because of the actions of the men who nailed Christ to the cross. It has always been seen as a good day for planting seeds — because Christ’s blood is said to enrich the whole earth on that day. Some men wear a black tie on that day as a sign of mourning. It is said that ash trees quiver because theirs was the wood of which the cross was made.
On Holy Saturday night we will see the water blessed for baptisms, and perhaps some of the newly-baptized wearing their white robes. The white christening robe is an old Christian tradition, and many families will have one as an heirloom. In our family, it is made of hand-made Sussex “pulled thread” lace. Some families embroider, in white, the name of each child on the long skirt of the christening robe.
And so, on to Easter and the climax of it all. Chocolate eggs have become a main part of the feasting and are certainly enjoyed by those who have given up chocolate during Lent. For many of us, that first taste of it on Easter morning is one of the best of our Catholic experiences! But older traditions are worth savoring too, and Holy Saturday is a good day for these.
Coloring eggs can be fun. There are all sorts of kits on sale in shops, complete with stickers to complete the decorations. But it is also possible to use natural dyes. Boiling eggs with nettle leaves will turn them a dull green, beetroot a pleasing pink, onion skins an orange/yellow tint. Rubbing a little olive oil over the shells afterwards produces a nice sheen.
Eggs can be “blown” by piercing a hole at each end and blowing out the contents. The empty shell is then ready for painting, while the egg mixture can meanwhile be put to good use — mixed with shampoo it is said to make the hair shining and healthy.
Catholics might be surprised to know how others look to us to explain and display some of the riches of the Christian faith that underpin all sorts of traditions. Easter is a good time to open up and, through hospitality, conversations and simple family traditions, show the beauty of a heritage that points us all to the things of eternity. Don’t let waste our Easter traditions or allow them to disappear!
writes from London.